Monday, 24 March 2008

Repast (Naruse, 1951)

Repast is my first experience with this underseen Japanese director, and it conforms to all the Narusean traits that I was expecting: bleakness, pessimism, embitterment etc. - but in spite of that, those are not the feeling that linger in my mind? Naruse's observations re: the minutiae of everyday existence are so meticulous that one leaves the film feeling privileged for having experienced such a rich portrait of these characters' lives. He establishes this idea of gender conformity (and its mundane consequences) from the get-go: Michiyo (a sorta deglammed Setsuko Hara) plays the role of subservient housewife to Hatsu's (Ken Uehara) indifferent breadwinner. With Michiyo's every movement however, one detects her sense of discontentment. This unhappiness can be stifled for the sake of social convention if this uninspiring stalemate is maintained by the couple, but the narrative's introduction of Hatsu's niece Satoko upsets this status quo. Satoko's brash (but perhaps modern?) outlook functions as the catalyst that threatens the order - aka, Michiyo's entire world.

Naruse is committed to depicting his characters as three-dimensional human beings here, which adds to both the realism and the complexity of the film's emotional undercurrents. Michiyo - as Hara plays her - is a character who demands our affections whilst stubbornly refusing our sympathy (she even says as much in the film - that scene where her cousin inadvertently hits upon her marital pride? Wow!) She's perhaps more responsible for her relationship woes than her husband, due to her inability to express herself before reaching a breaking point - although this arguably says as much about her social role and her desire to maintain the patriarchal order than it does about her personality itself. As for Hatsu, he's miles removed from being cast as the villain of this piece (as one might've expected) - his love for Michiyo is evident, he's simply a relatively hapless and unobservant individual caught up in the monotonous rhythms dictated by his own role in this order. One of the film's most touching scenes finds Michiyo bumping into an old schoolfriend in Tokyo (now an impoverished single-mother) who states that: "A woman on her own can't achieve much." There's a curious irony to these words however, for the director repeatedly cuts back to shots of Hatsu - shown to be completely incapable by his self during Michiyo's absence from the household. This deft suggestion that men on their own aren't much better seems typical of the director's aspiration towards a full-bodied presentation of life. The design of this presentation finds Naruse sympathetic to his characters, but successfully preserving enough distance to remain forever critical of the structures that provoke their grievances.

One of the reasons for Naruse's exclusion from the Holy Trinity of Japanese masters is his (apparent, for I am not well-versed enough to comment yet!) lack of a definitive stylistic imprint à la Mizoguchi or Ozu. I'll discover whether or not this is true as I experience more of his work, but the director certainly has a clear grasp on how to tailor his visual style to some level of substance. The artificiality of the director's sets has a curious relation to the acute emotional realism of his story, and creates a dichotomy that Naruse is surely aware of. Indeed, he actively exploits it - after all, his films are all about the (potential) friction caused by people attempting to defy established conceptions of behaviour, no? And I think this plays into his manipulation of the spatial dimensions of Repast - the whole idea of man-made constraints repressing characters... which, incidentally, is something that Mizoguchi utilizes as well imo. Moreover, there's a consistent separation of foreground and background in the film's domestic spaces, which serve to further isolate Michiyo whlist entrapping her in the confines of that godforsaken kitchen in which she's so frequently seen during the first hour or so - the kitchen, tellingly, is in background space. The effect of this is to render the framing of Michiyo in open spaces a more refreshing experience for both character and audience, in short: we share the delicious taste of her freedom with her.

Repast wouldn't be a Naruse film if this lasted for too substantial a portion of time, however. The "taste of freedom" is a peculiar one: Michiyo's family are outwardly hospitable but nonetheless tangibly lukewarm to her extended stay, whilst her potential love interest ends up [Spoiler:] with Satoko, the one character she overtly dislikes! The outside world is incapable of assisting in Michiyo's liberation, and thus, we are left with an inevitable conclusion which can be seen as slightly problematic in terms of the film's gender politics - not so much for the [Spoiler:] return to domesticity, which I think Naruse is weary of, but more for Michiyo's voiceover which wonders if: "maybe this is a woman's happiness?" On the one hand, Hatsu's decision to come to Tokyo and - more importantly - the importance of the context in which he uses the phrase "I'm sorry!" (after saying that he's starving), shows that he is willing to respect and value her more. On the other hand, the final scene leaves us with some doubts regarding the extent of this compromise ("I'm tired!"), and Michiyo's internal monologue is at odds with her demeanour which hints at a realisation of this act of submission. Repast's finale leaves the audience with a bittersweet aftertaste for sure, but it's Naruse's generosity in providing us with even the slightest glimmer of hope that I'll take away from this. And because of that, I find it to be a perfect introduction to his work? Oh, and also the fact that it's a friggin' terrific film, LOL!

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